You can go snorkeling in the North Georgia mountains

Snorkeling in the Georgia mountains

This summer won’t be like past ones, with the coronavirus pandemic keeping many people close to home. But why not reclaim the feel of summer by going picnicking, hiking and snorkeling in North Georgia?

Yes, snorkeling.

Snorkeling is usually associated with coastal areas, but a spot near Cisco is a prime place to explore what’s below the water’s surface.

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More than 70 species of fish can be spotted in the Conasauga River, which merges with Jack’s River to form a well-known snorkeling hole. Some of these fish are found no place else on Earth.

In 2013, Jacq Marie Jack recalled taking her nephew there when he was 12. “He loved it,” she said.

It was a summer day, and he was bored. She suggested they go snorkeling. “What?” he exclaimed, “Drive all the way to Florida?”

Nope, she said. It’s a day trip to the mountains.

After exiting the interstate at Cartersville, they drove to Cisco on U.S. 411. Eventually they turned on to a dirt road for about 30 minutes, entering the Chattahoochee National Forest (which becomes the Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee). Just across the state line, where the conjoined streams loop into Tennessee before bending south again into Georgia, they reached the site, a recreation area with picnic tables.

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Then they walked down a gentle incline to the Conasauga River. It was clear and clean with a large deep pool where fish collect. Because both the Conasauga and Jack’s rivers originate in the federally protected Cohutta Wilderness, the water is unusally clean and clear and boasts an unusual abundance of fish.

“He liked the sense of discovery,” Jack said of her nephew. His most vivid memory is the large snapping turtle he found.

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For Jack, it felt like a rich experience. “We don’t realize we have the ability to look under the surface” in the tumbling rivers and creeks of North Georgia and Tennesee, she said.

The pool in the Conasauga was designated for snorkeling by the U.S. Forest Service in 2000.

Gilt darters are among the many species of fish that can be found in the Conasauga River. Darters and minnows are easy to see in shallow waters. U.S. Forest Service

Credit: HANDOUT, not for resale

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Credit: HANDOUT, not for resale

“It’s like swimming in an aquarium,” said Jim Herrig, an aquatic biologist with the Forest Service. When he takes groups to the snorkeling hole, he is generally able to point out no fewer than 20 species of fish, many of them colorful.

In late summer, one of the most colorful is the Blue Shiner, gray-blue with a gold stripe. An endangered species, it is found in only four other streams in the world — but it’s common here.

Snorkelers can also see the Mobile logperch, a yellow fish with tiger stripes, which can reach half a foot long. This fish flips rocks over with its nose to eat the bugs underneath. It’s a good indicator of clean streams, since it can’t survive in polluted ones.

Darters and minnows can be seen easily in the shallows, Herrig said. Swimmers only have to dip their masks slightly below water level to see.

Drum fish, up to 20 inches long, and redhorse suckers, which can be 2 feet long, will migrate downstream for winter. The river redhorse has a distinctive red tail. These fish normally are at their most colorful in the spring.

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The Georgia Conservancy will take a group to the area in mid-August.

Although wetsuits aren’t necessary, Brian Foster of the Conservancy told the AJC a few years ago they improve buoyancy, allowing swimmers to float easily on the surface to view fish underneath.

Foster said children as young as 5 or 6 would enjoy the experience. The water temperature ranges from 72 to 75 degrees in the summer, and pools are shallow around the edges. The pools deepen to about 8 feet, though.

Jack’s advice to snorkelers is to wear a T-shirt over bathing suits to avoid any snags on the rocks. She also prefers to swim to the pool through shallow water rather than walk across the rocks.

Conasauga River Trail, Cohuta Wilderness

Credit: Phuc Dao

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Credit: Phuc Dao

The last 4 to 5 miles to the area are on a forest access road of dirt and gravel.

“You have to pay attention to the directions,” Foster said.

Families who would like to go snorkeling can simply make a day trip to the area. Or combine it with a hiking and camping trip. Other pools good for snorkeling are found for four miles downstream from the designated snorkeling area. They can be reached by a hiking trail along the river.

If you go

  • Take 1-75 north to U.S. 411 north near Cartersville
  • Take 411 North all the way to Cisco
  • In Cisco, look for a large, rock church on the right side of the road (red gas station on your left)
  • Take Old Highway 2 into the Cohutta Wilderness area (travel time: 30-45 minutes)
  • After several miles, Old Highway 2 will make a sharp right —stay straight on Old Chable Road
  • Once you make it to a large steel bridge (with high railings) and the road dead ends, take a left.
  • After a mile, the parking area will be on your left on a sharp decline. Park and take the small dirt path on your left to the snorkel pool.

What to take

  • Snorkel
  • Mask
  • Wetsuit (optional, but helps you stay warm, float, and avoid bumps and scrapes).
  • Pack a lunch or bring snacks. There are not any nearby food options.
  • Bug spray for your time out of the water.
  • Source: Georgia Conservancy

As with any swimming activity, adults should keep a constant eye on children.